Loving The Polar Express as a Christmas-hater

I am not a Christmas person. Losing snow (thanks, climate change), a need for presents, Christianity, close family, and Santa is a quintuple whammy I’ve never been able to rescue the holiday from. And though I saw the movie and book as a kid, I don’t remember either being great. I think I saw both soon after I stopped believing in Santa so The Polar Express was pointless. A kid wants to believe in Santa, but obviously Santa’s fake so the central conflict doesn’t matter. It’s not a good kids' movie once you stop believing.

But as an adult, The Polar Express is excellent. The conflict is belief in general, and can be as narrow as Santa or as broad as the good within us all. On the train, the hero boy is repeatedly tempted by a Satan-like non-believer who is just one source of many otherworldly experiences in the film. Every moment with Satan is a treat, and it’s a shame we lose him at the North Pole. The Express is magic, and it’s why I lost some interest once they leave the train. The North Pole is just a slightly whimsical factory town compared to the impossible experiences that transpire on the train. Even the super sappy poor kid subplot worked for me, with an awesome song in the middle. His pain at being poor and thus passed over by Santa is palpable. In-universe, it only works if you don’t think about it, so don’t. Just believe.

“Christmas just doesn’t work out for me. Never has.”

Everything I remember from 15 years ago is the train or the ending. Part of the problem is an infinite number of things can happen enroute, but once they arrive, the reasons for not making it to Santa become more obviously contrived. To be fair, I doubt a 1:10 train sequence with a brief Santa conclusion would be better. The skydiving elves are great. The panicked third act as Hero Boy can’t see or hear Santa the way others can is a kind of horror rarely seen in a Christmas movie. The hero kid’s bathrobe is more grown-up than some of the other passengers' footie onesies, reinforcing the theme. It really is Contact for kids. The whoopee cushion dirigible is a nice touch.

The Polar Express is full of tiny moments that would be the best part of lesser movies. These wonderful moments include the reddish glow of snow reflecting off the speeding mountains and onto the train, the conductor punching tickets behind his back or in 5 dimensions, the pneumatic tubes as means to transport tiny elves, the hot chocolate sequence (including pulling a cloth off the table while standing on it and also disappearing the table entirely), or even the gorgeous book-inspired shots of the train arriving or spiraling up the mountain. The movie seems to take place in the 50s, making it more timeless and allegorical.

The Polar Express looks killer, has incredible music, and uses animation to its fullest. Colors pop all over the picturebook style. The camera is way too untethered for this to work in live-action. It’s a parable of almost biblical nature, and one of the few movies with a visual style all its own. I can’t believe how overlooked it is.